There is a glaring lack of talent on the team. But even more significantly, what has really kept this team from playing up to its capability all season is what we've been citing for months – the glaring lack of desire.
UCLA might have played hard for a total of five minutes Saturday. There was little energy on defense or on the boards in the first half. Players were standing erect, out of their defensive stance. A back-up, slow, unathletic center, Tom Timmermans, had a career day with 20 points. Notre Dame had open looks at the basket all day, with UCLA's defenders too slow-footed to get out on them.
It says quite a bit when it's Senior Day and UCLA's starting senior, T.J. Cummings, played only 21 minutes, not starting the second half and missing its first 7 minutes because he was making little effort on defense. Not playing Cummings, and taking him out with 1:30 to go in the game, not allowing him to have a standard senior farewell moment, is certainly a clear message.
Even given the lack of talent, there is still a fairly wide range of performance that this team was capable of. The team wasn't anywhere near the worst it could have performed. With the lack of talent and heart, this team very well might have only 3-5 wins. That's completely within the realm of possibility.
But after 25 games it's probably pretty easy to conclude that this team is somewhere in the middle of its achievement range. Perhaps a bit toward the top end, but still closer to the middle than the top.
Now, why is this? What's wrong with this team and its competitiveness that it couldn't achieve to its capability – or even over-achieve, like it was doing earlier in the season?
We're going to leave the more in-depth analysis and bigger conclusions for a season-ending review of the team when this season mercifully comes to an end.
This game, though, really showed the effect of an effort level that is turned on and off like a faucet. It was a game of spurts and runs, dependent completely on when UCLA actually made an effort and when it didn't. UCLA played with no inspiration for the first 10 minutes of the game, and went down 29-9. Head Coach Ben Howland tried some personnel changes and a timeout, and found a small combination of players that exerted a bit of effort. UCLA played defense, stopped Notre Dame for a few minutes, and went on a 24-2 run to draw the score to 31-23. But then, in what was incredibly exasperating, it gave it away again by the end of the half. In the last five minutes of the half, UCLA deflated horribly again, giving back practically its entire run, going into halftime at 44-25.
The second half was less big swings but more consistently a lack of consistent effort. UCLA couldn't stop Chris Thomas, who was the dagger-man the entire game. When UCLA would get some energy and mount a little mini-run to get them back to within 10-13 points, Thomas would step up and hit a three and quell the mini-rebellion. It's actually what good college players who have heart do.
But how is it possible for a team to win that gets zero rebounds from its center position in the first half? How can a team win that gets its first basket from its point guard with 5:30 left to go in the game? How can it win when it gets 10 points and five rebounds on Senior Day from its one, lone starting senior?
While there were many moments in this game that had you shaking your head, perhaps one had the biggest resonance. With about three minutes left in the game, and UCLA still having a chance to get within striking distance, Notre Dame shot the ball with three UCLA players boxing out for the rebound. Without a Notre Dame player within 20 feet, the three Bruins went for the rebound, but through lack of desire and talent, the ball bounced past all three and into the hands of a Notre Dame player.
And this painful season won't be coming to an end anytime soon. It certainly won't end next weekend, because, as a result of the games this weekend, UCLA is assured of a berth in the Pac-10 tournament. Now, we know that UCLA fans have little concern about the Pac-10 tournament. But the fact that UCLA is in the tournament still provides some glimmer of hope that the season could end on a far more positive note than the direction it seems to be going. For the optimists, anyway. Maybe, for some, it provides the opportunity for more pain in watching this team.
But the definite ray of hope was evident in the recruits that were seen at the game. Jordan Farmar and Josh Shipp, two of UCLA's committed recruits, were in attendance. Also seen were: committed freshman Taylor King; junior combo guard Anthony Goods, Corona Centennial; 6-9 sophomore post Alex Stepheson, Harvard-Westlake; 6-5 sophomore wing, Chase Budinger, La Costa Canyon; 5-9 freshman point guard, JayDee Luster, San Diego Hoover; junior forward Jamal Boykin, Fairfax; and 6-10 twins, Robin and Brook Lopez, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial.
Now, there are two sides to a good group of recruits showing up to such a lousy game. You never want to have recruits see you get booed in your own building. On the other hand, the recruits have to be thinking that there's going to be some playing time to be had at UCLA over the next several years.